Your mental health internet search may lead to malware

Looking for virtual therapy, meditation music, or ADHD treatment? You might find malware instead.
By Rebecca Ruiz  on 
A spotlight shines on a man at his computer desk.
Certain mental health search terms, like virtual therapy and meditation music, have a higher risk of malware. Credit: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable

Your online search for certain mental health terms may unexpectedly lead to malware.

New research conducted by Beyond Identity, a passwordless identity management provider, analyzed high-volume mental health search terms and found that many of them involve an elevated risk of encountering links leading to software that can steal data or damage your device or network.

The term "meditation music" yielded links with critical risk, according to Beyond Identity. Users should be particularly wary of downloading music for their meditation practice when searching this term.

While none of the other phrases that Beyond Identity assessed resulted in critical risk links, all of the following terms were considered medium risk or greater: "psychiatrist near me," "meditation music," "virtual therapy," "mental health services," "ADHD treatment," "breathing exercise," "mindfulness meditation," "anxiety treatment," "depression treatment," and "how to meditate."

The report urged consumers to "tread cautiously" when specifically searching for "meditation music," "psychiatrist near me," and "virtual therapy." Nearly a third of the top link results in those categories had an elevated risk of malware.

Beyond Identity's research focused on malware risk connected to work-related searches, but the company also looked broadly at mental health terms. It found that the latter tied for second for greatest malware risk with searches for work-related training and courses amongst all categories, an indication of how aggressively bad actors are looking to exploit people's interest in discovering online content and resources for their well-being.

A list of mental health search terms with an elevated risk of malware.
These mental health search terms yielded links with an elevated risk for malware. Credit: Beyond Identity

To conduct the research, Beyond Identity selected popular terms that exceeded 6,000 searches in the U.S. last month. It then collected the first non-sponsored 50 link results yielded by Google Chrome and ran them through a malware detector tool. (Your individual algorithm may affect which links would be top results in such a search.)

Links were flagged if the website blocked the malware detection tool, used outdated software, or contained identifiable malware. A site that uses outdated software or deploys a malware detection tool can be prone to malicious code.

Simply visiting a site laced with malware can infect your device, as can clicking on an ad embedded with malware, interacting with pop-ups, and downloading infected media files, software, or documents.

A panic-inducing malware infection is the last thing you want when searching for mental health information. If you're suspicious of your search results, it's best to trust only reputable websites and your healthcare provider.

Rebecca Ruiz
Rebecca Ruiz

Rebecca Ruiz is a Senior Reporter at Mashable. She frequently covers mental health, digital culture, and technology. Her areas of expertise include suicide prevention, screen use and mental health, parenting, youth well-being, and meditation and mindfulness. Prior to Mashable, Rebecca was a staff writer, reporter, and editor at NBC News Digital, special reports project director at The American Prospect, and staff writer at Forbes. Rebecca has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a Master's in Journalism from U.C. Berkeley. In her free time, she enjoys playing soccer, watching movie trailers, traveling to places where she can't get cell service, and hiking with her border collie.

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